Why writing a miserably bad first draft is essential

Perfection doesn’t magically flow onto paper or screen. Go ahead, and stink up the joint with your shoddy prose. You can—and should—fix it later, but the freedom to fail can be liberating.

My library of books about writing expands every year, but no author has shaped and affirmed my writing process like Anne Lamott.

In “Bird by Bird,” Lamott liberated me with these words:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

I was already creating lousy first drafts, but I didn’t trust them. If I was a “good” writer, wouldn’t the words pour forth in perfect order?

Lamott taught me that my terrible first drafts are not just OK; they are necessary.

I pass her wisdom along to every writer I coach or train or advise, whether they’re writing at work, starting a blog, contemplating a memoir or simply keeping a journal.

You have to start somewhere, so start with a mess. Write a stream-of-consciousness draft. Silence your inner critic. Don’t edit, reorganize, second-guess or fact-check.

Here’s why you should write bad first drafts:

1. Writing nonsense is fun.

Giving yourself permission to put anything on the page gives you a helluva lot of latitude. You can write anything. Describe your worst nightmare, vent about your in-laws, list the reasons you don’t want to write. Eventually, you’ll run out of nonsense and tap into what you really have to say. Meanwhile, you can lighten up and enjoy the ride.

2. Setting aside perfection makes way for inspiration.

When you’re not hung up on commas, subject/verb agreement and a consistent tense, your attention is free to catch those fireflies of brilliance that flit through your consciousness when you’re on a roll.

3. You increase your chances of writing something good.

The more you show up at the page, the more crap you write, the more chances you have to maybe say something meaningful.

4. Editing becomes a crucial cleanup mission.

Writing poorly doesn’t hurt your credibility; publishing bad writing does. If you’ve afforded yourself the freedom of a lousy first draft, you can be sure your work is riddled with errors. Not wanting a mistake to slip past the “send” button, you will treat the revision process like a high-stakes scavenger hunt, rooting out every error or shortcoming that could tarnish your reputation.

5. You learn.

You learn that writing takes time and that you have time to write. You learn that writing is hard but you can do it. You learn to see your thoughts in black and white in front of you—where you can work with them—instead of keeping them locked inside your head. The more you learn, the more you know. The more you know, the more you grow. (Cliché? Yes, but oh, so true.)

6. You become a writer.

You know what makes someone a writer? Writing. When you write a first draft—even if it’s an utter disaster—that’s what you’re doing. So, lighten up and enjoy the practice.

Go ahead, write something awful. Only one person needs to see your terrible, horrible, no good, very bad draft: you. So if you’re agonizing to satisfy someone’s lofty expectations for perfection, stop. Lower your expectations this instant.

Write like a professional; write something awful.

Beth Nyland is a communicator, leader, advisor, teacher and founder of Spencer Grace. She helps people raise the quality of their communications. Learn more about her work and her ideas at www.spencergrace.com, where this article originally appeared.


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